‘Life After Murder’ details parolees seeking redemption

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 8/15/2012, 7:31 a.m.
(L-R): Jesse Reed, Don Cronk, Eddie Ramirez, Philip Seiler and Rich Rael stand in front...
natl14a.jpg credit: Elisabeth Fall

When Don Cronk was young, he became addicted to cocaine. The addiction consumed him and he started stealing to pay for his habit.

But one night, a burglary took an unexpected turn. Cronk and his friend broke into a house, only to find the owner still there. The old man pulled out a gun and shot Cronk.

Cronk fired back, immediately killing the home owner. Cronk never intended to hurt anyone that night — he just had an addiction to feed. Still, he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

It’s a familiar story: Someone commits a crime, gets caught and is sent to prison. For most people, that’s where the story ends — the bad guy gets put away. But for Cronk and so many others, it’s only the beginning.

In her new book, “Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption,” NPR reporter Nancy Mullane follows a group of men in California’s San Quentin State Prison through the arduous process of parole and eventually freedom.  All had been convicted of murder and sentenced to life behind bars.

“We don’t know who these people who have committed these kinds of crimes become after they’ve gone to prison,” said Mullane. “We don’t know what the back end of that looks like.”

Cronk used his time in prison as an opportunity to turn his life around. With the help of various programs — and a new-found faith in God — Cronk overcame his drug addiction.  He also confronted his past bad behavior — what he called “the ultimate crime against humanity” — and earned his GED and an associate’s degree. He got a job at the prison chapel, maintained a steady girlfriend, and had a perfect disciplinary record.  He never even smoked a cigarette.

“Every criminal is painted as this monster, irredeemable — someone to be terrified of all the time,” Cronk said. “But my experience — and for most of the men I knew in there — is that we realized what we did. We admitted what we did. We accepted the punishment. If you do all of these things, you shall have a light at the end of the tunnel.”

While Cronk seemed to be the perfect candidate for parole, getting it approved was nearly impossible. In 2007, the California parole board scheduled 6,181 hearings  and found only 119 lifers suitable — less than two percent. Those few then faced an even more difficult challenge — getting the governor’s approval.

In the late 1980s, a Massachusetts prisoner named Willie Horton was released on a weekend furlough program and fled to Maryland.  While there, he raped a woman and assaulted her fiancé. This incident was used to damaging effect by George H.W. Bush against his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. The campaign ad exploiting the Horton case was a catalyst to nationwide anxiety about parole.

Since then, parole has become a political liability for elected officials.  As a safeguard, California and a number of other states have implemented laws that require the governor to approve the parole board’s rulings on prisoners convicted of murder.